With one Hail Mary pass - a blown call that really did decide the outcome of a game - and a ton of media attention in the aftermath, the entire nation now has officially taken notice of the NFL’s painful, embarrassing “replacement officials” situation.
Fans of the Packers (and fantasy football players who owned the Green Bay defense) weren’t the only ones cringing after the Seahawks’ “Senseless In Seattle,” 14-12, last-second win before a Monday Night Football audience.
So were Steve Wynn and Emry Dilday.
They just knew the trickle-down effect of replacement-ref bashing wouldn’t be good for the folks who put those stripes on at all levels below the suddenly perfect, never-missed-a-call, striking real NFL officials.
Listen to any former NFL player who’s now a talking head in the booth providing color commentary on Sundays or Monday nights and you’ll suddenly find it amazing how any official who’s not a real NFL official can even find their way to a stadium, feed themselves, go potty on their own or function in every-day life.
They have become the symbol of imbecile for the nation … and all because a few replacement refs who stepped out of their comfort zone and into a frying pan of criticism have made a habit of marring the nation’s favorite pastime by either missing calls, making too many calls or completely botching the “mechanics” of those calls they are trying to make.
Of course, making it worse is when the national media then goes digging for the backgrounds of these replacement refs and discovers the truth.
Like, for example, that the side judge who erroneously signaled the game-winning “touchdown” for the Seahawks on Monday night on the decisive final play was a man named Lance Easley who, by day, is a vice president for Bank of America … and is a long-time high school and junior college referee. He will now be reminded of it on every Sunday going forward by the players, fans and media until the real refs return. And, perhaps, if he screws up any bank loans or provides an incorrect interest rate for a customer the rest of his life.
Dilday and Wynn could see this coming.
First, a little background. They are the guys responsible for just about every high school football officiating crew on Friday nights throughout the Ozarks. They train those guys, assign them to the games and generally serve as mentors for all of them, especially the younger ones just getting into the business.
Dilday has been in the refereeing biz for 48 years, having called games for 43 of them before stepping off the field and into his supervisory role full-time four years ago. He’s the Executive Director of the Southwest Missouri Football Officials Association, the state’s senior rules interpreter and a member the National Federation’s rules committee.
Translated: He knows high school football. And Dilday knows pro football … just not, he admits, in the way an NFL official must know it. And certainly not enough to have ever said “yes” had the NFL ever called him to jump in and serve as a replacement ref, even in his younger, on-field days.
“It’s a new level of rules … it’s just tough,” Dilday says. “When the NFL typically brings new people in, they run them through all kinds of training, so when they do go out on the field, they’re not just thrown out there. They put them out there with veterans and gradually work them into it. These replacement guys had no chance to adjust to the speed of that game, the level of play of that game, the difference in the rules, the way every call is scrutinized afterward with seven cameras on every call … I can see why it’s causing problems for these guys.
“I don’t want to see it happen because in a way, it gives a black mark to all officiating. I certainly feel for them. These guys are doing the best they can, and probably are very good at the level they are used to working.”
As Dilday points out, it might have been a smoother transition if, like last time a labor issue cropped up, some of the top officials from the top (BCS) level of NCAA Division I football answered the call to come in as NFL subs. But those guys soon afterward discovered that when they crossed those picket lines, it tended to have an adverse affect on the rest of their college careers when they went back . (Read: Blackballed).
So those BCS officials politely and wisely said “no thanks” this time around, preserving their current cushy status in the college game and leaving the NFL to seek out retired refs from those conferences or men in stripes from the lower levels.
And that, says Wynn, is a big reason why there’s a problem – the game’s highest level is left with a bunch of folks who were fighting an uphill battle from the start.
“There’s no way in the world I would have taken part in that,” says Wynn, in his 17th year as a current high school football official and one of the best in the area.
“It is football, but the rules are just so different … there are so many little things. And the pace of the game … it’s why you don’t see kids jump from high school football into the NFL. It really is a different kind of game.”
Wynn saw this in his real job as video professional with Ozarks Public Television and many, many years of sidelines work shooting everything from high school to pro games.
He recalls one time shooting a St. Louis Rams game one time when he could barely keep up with Marshall Faulk while panning in his viewfinder, then in moving ahead, noticed that 6-foot-7, 325-pound offensive tackle Orlando Pace was actually running stride-for-stride with the quick back to clear a path for him. Certainly, an eye-opener for those not accustomed to seeing this athletic freak show on a weekly basis.
The current NFL players know this, and are trying to take advantage of it. They no doubt are testing the waters and pushing the replacements to the brink by seeing what they can get away with physically against their foes and how much verbal abuse these “scabs” can, and will, take.
That’s no different than what these officials hear, perhaps, on many Friday nights and Saturday afternoons at the levels they are accustomed to. It’s just that now it’s Ray Lewis or Aaron Rodgers doing the chirping. And on top of all the rules interpretations and mechanics differences in the pro game, that’s psychologically got to have an impact on their whistle-blowing … especially when someone of an elite stature is constantly reminding a bunch of men (and one woman) who are in over their heads that they are indeed, in over their heads.
It certainly reminds Wynn each weekend, when he sits down to watch an NFL Sunday or prime-time game and hears his fellow stripes-wearing souls taking a verbal beating from everywhere that Friday nights are all right with him.
“I don’t want to do college or the NFL … I’m happy doing high school football,” he says. “We’ve all blown a call. I’ve just never done it in front of a Monday Night Football national TV audience with 85,000 in the stands. No thanks.”
As fans, we may think “it’s just football” and wonder why the heck these replacement officials can’t seem to get anything right.
But those folks who wear stripes at any level know full well that it’s not just football.
For a chosen few who couldn’t say “no,” it has become a nightmare.
Follow former News-Leader sports columnist Scott Puryear on Twitter at @scottpuryear.